Why Do We Have Deadlines?

Why do we have deadlines? Deadlines can cause much stress and anxiety. The name itself implies some sort of a pending doom; a point in time after which everything is dead. The work you are doing must stop, finished or not, and you will be judged by the work that is (or isn’t) completed.

To me, deadlines have always seemed arbitrary and, as such, not very important. If you absolutely must meet a deadline, you can simply narrow the scope of your project. This of course assumes that the definition of “done” is somewhat loose, which, I find is usually the case. If the deadline was a made-up estimate, then you can push it back until you’re done-done. I find the first scenario much more dangerous in terms of the quaility of your work. The danger with the second scenario is that your work may never get done.

So what is a deadline? Really it’s a time constraint we put on our work. But why do we time-constrain our work? Here are a few examples that I can think of:

Resources

You know the saying, “time is money.” Deadlines are made to satisfy resource constraints. A project has a monetary budget and workers are most often paid by time. The work must finish before the money runs out. Even if you’re not resource constrained, deadlines can be used as a mechanism to save resources. Venture-backed startups are not usually constrained by money but they can still be resource constrained if they are unable to hire enough workers. A deficit of engineers will naturally lead companies to work the ones they’ve got a lot harder.

Coordiation

When working on a project with other teams or people you might need to sync up or hand off work. Deadlines are established so that each side can plan accordingly. April 15th (tax day in the US) is an example of a deadline that is based on coordination.

Motivation

There’s another saying, “if it weren’t for the last minute nothing would ever get done.” If you don’t have any resource or coordination constraints then deadlines are largely established as a way of setting goals. Often times these are just ballpark estimates. The tighter the deadline, the more you’re looking to motivate.

Opportunity

This is a time constraint that is external. Opportunity is difficult to recognize and more difficult measure. As a deadline, this usually works out to “as soon as possible.” This type of deadline, of course, isn’t very helpful and can lead to shipping an incomplete product. It’s also the most pressing for venture-backed startups that usually lack monetary resource contraints but are looking to get a first mover advantage.

You can see an interesting example of an arbitrary deadline that motivates participants in a histogram of finish times of over 9 million marathons. There are distinguishable spikes at each hour and half hour increment because runners set these round numbered-times to be their goals.

So, it turns out, deadlines do serve a purpose and the ones that seem arbitrary are really just there to help you along. When you’re confronted with a deadline, it’s helpful to know its purpose so you know whether or not you must meet it.

Written 29 April 2014